The Grammarphobia Blog

Pimping the doc

Q: My daughter is in medical school, where she has encountered an odd terminology. When a senior doctor asks questions of an intern or a medical student, the “asking” is referred to as “pimping.” No one (from med student to professor to practicing doctor) seems to know the origin of this rather strange usage for an educational exercise. Can you shed any light? 

A: Most of us (those who haven’t gone to medical school) probably think of the word “pimping” in its usual sense – procuring a sexual partner for another – or in one of its recent slang incarnations, such as taking advantage of someone or customizing something in a flashy way.

Nobody, though, seems to be sure about the origin of “pimp” itself, the source of all this pimping.

Some have suggested that the noun and verb “pimp,” both dating from the early 1600s, may have been influenced by the French pimper (to dress elegantly). The present participle pimpant means alluring or seductive in dress.

But the Oxford English Dictionary says any similarities to French are coincidental, and the origin of “pimp” is unknown.

A somewhat unusual adjectival meaning of the word “pimping” is insignificant, paltry, petty, or sickly. (There are similar words with similar senses in German and Dutch.)

One can see how this meaning of “pimping” might apply in the case of a young medical student, aggressively questioned by a superior and made to feel intellectually puny.

As it happens, Frederick L. Brancati, MD, wrote an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1989 on the pimping of medical students by attending physicians. We’ll excerpt a few paragraphs:

“Pimping occurs whenever an attending poses a series of very difficult questions to an intern or student. The earliest reference to pimping is attributed to Harvey in London in 1628. He laments his students’ lack of enthusiasm for learning the circulation of the blood: ‘They know nothing of Natural Philosophy, these pin-heads. Drunkards, sloths, their bellies filled with Mead and Ale. O that I might see them pimped!’

“In 1889, Koch recorded a series of ‘Puempfrage’ or ‘pimp questions’ he would later use on his rounds in Heidelberg. Unpublished notes made by Abraham Flexner on his visit to Johns Hopkins in 1916 yield the first American reference: ‘Rounded with Osler today. Riddles house officers with questions. Like a Gatling gun. Welch says students call it “pimping.” Delightful.’

“On the surface, the aim of pimping appears to be Socratic instruction. The deeper motivation, however, is political. Proper pimping inculcates the intern with a profound and abiding respect for his attending physician while ridding the intern of needless self-esteem. Furthermore, after being pimped, he is drained of the desire to ask new questions – questions that his attending may be unable to answer.”

The slang use of “pimping” in the sense of customizing was of course popularized in the US by the TV program “Pimp My Ride,” which was first broadcast in 2004. But the term was around before the arrival of the show about restoring and customizing dilapidated cars.

The first published reference in the OED is from a March 13, 2000, posting to an Internet newsgroup: “They have to pimp their ride up.”

The next citation is from a Nov. 14, 2002, issue of Rolling Stone: “I pimped out the Bentley with white-and-blue-striped interior.”

Pat recalls another sense of the term that dates from her college days (she won’t say how long ago this was, but Stewart notes that our country was at war in Southeast Asia).

If you were deliberately irritating or prodding or teasing someone or putting him on, according to Pat, you were said to be “pimping” him. The victim might reply, “Oh, you’re just pimping me,” or “Stop pimping me.”

Finally, an  actor once wrote us that in improvisational theater, “pimping” means asking another actor an unexpected question on stage. This is extremely rude, he said, because springing a question on someone during an improvised performance unfairly puts the other actor on the spot.

Not unlike putting an unsuspecting medical student off balance.

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